TONY SMITH.- Virtual parliament or elective dictatorship?

As the Morrison Government responds incrementally to the Corona Virus epidemic – apparently following expert medical advice – there has been much comment about decisions to close businesses such as hairdressing salons. Sadly, the decision to shut down parliament received comparatively little discussion.

Parliament is a workplace and like every other workplace is a site of potential communal infection. No-one wants their local MP exposed to danger and no-one welcomes the thought of MPs returning from Canberra to infect local communities. The health of parliamentary staff is also an important consideration. The imperative to physically close parliament is strong. It is a shame that the Coalition sees fit to govern without a parliament but wants teachers to keep schools open. Teachers have been given the heroic role on the front line of the ‘fight’ against the virus, alongside health care workers. It will be apparent to many teachers that they are being placed in danger because the government has no plans or ability to provide alternative child care for ‘essential’ workers such as nurses who ought not to stay home.

It does suit the executive government very well to present the response to the pandemic as a ‘fight’ or a war. People understand the notion of a war cabinet and might be prepared to accept a form of temporary, limited suspension of democratic norms. Parliament has always been the Opposition’s arena in Westminster systems. As governments need parliament to endorse legislation, they are forced to accept amendments to bills and are subject to other forms of scrutiny such as that provided by committees.

What a pity that the Morrison Government has squandered any honeymoon capital it might have had by showing itself barely honest and hardly competent over recent months. The level of trust in government is very low. This is not the first time that this government has used procedural arrangements to limit parliamentary scrutiny. Goodwill has been exhausted.

Assuming that the government expects to modify further its instructions about the social lockdown, it must operate now without legislative approval. It will issue instructions as ministerial directives and govern by regulation. Regulations and ordinances usually come under detailed scrutiny by parliamentary committees. In their absence, there is no effective watchdog on ministers exceeding their authority.

A couple of changes would ameliorate the alarm we should be feeling over the suspension of parliament. In a genuine war cabinet, the Opposition would be included. Emergency measures demand bipartisan support. The other possibility is that parliament meet in the way that we all now meet – electronically. The government recommends that people generally work from home. MPs should be able to do this as well. Surely, the lack of media protest about the closing of parliament is not a sign that MPs are considered to lack effectiveness.

Perhaps the Morrison Government has not thought about the consequences of its actions. The fiasco caused when thousands of people queued at Centrelink and the meltdown of the government website would have been anticipated and avoided by any half-competent government. Just as in the bushfire crisis, state premiers are showing that efficiency and good communication are possible and are re-assuring. Premier Andrews for example has supplemented instructions to people returning from overseas by enlisting empty motels as quarantine accommodation.

It is sometimes argued that Australians do not need rights listed in our constitution because we have a government responsible to parliament, media that is free to criticise. independent courts and limits on parliamentary terms. The fourth estate has been attacked by this government, journalists harassed and responses to requests under ‘freedom of information’ laws make a mockery of the term. Masked thugs have raided the homes of non-citizens. We are becoming a quasi-military society in the name of border protection. Weasel words are commonly used to create the impression that the government cares about the people while its actions suggest otherwise. When asked about ethical standards during the ‘sports rorts’ affair, the prime minister insisted ‘We have done nothing illegal’.

The most frightening possibility is that having tasted the fruits of authoritarianism, the Coalition might suggest that the health priorities and the need for a command economy demand an extension of power into some unspecified future. Already candidates in some local government areas across New South Wales have called for postponement of the September elections. We should perhaps be thankful that a federal election is not due soon.

The ultimate constraints on the government in Australia are the constitution and the need for popular approval. At times paternalistic Coalition governments have shown little respect for the conventions that fill the gaps in the written Constitution. They always think they know best and often think in terms of benign dictatorship. This current government continually spreads conflict and yet what Australia needs now is consensus based on broad consultation. Shutting parliament narrows the discussion and makes consensus less likely. We will be less alert and more alarmed.


Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.


Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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7 Responses to TONY SMITH.- Virtual parliament or elective dictatorship?

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    I have already written a lengthy essay re Hugh Mackay. So I will be brief.

    FB, Zoom, possibly Twitter (or an amalgam of these) could form a ‘virtual Parliament’.

    No Constitutional authority, therefore it must generate its own.

    I’d start (were it established) with an effective “Question Time” and simply ramp up the pressure on Morrison to ‘surrender for the [inevitable] win’.

  2. Sandra Hey says:

    The House of Representatives sat for 35 days in 2019 , to date 16 sitting days until closure of the Australian Parliament on 23rd March. It appears only a further 38 sitting days to the end of 2020. The writing is on the wall, we are in effect been governed by a Totalitarian Prime Minister with the help of the IPA and the big Accounting Firms to whom the Morrison Government has outsource the bulk of Government Public Service to (frightening). Scott Morrison as a Marketing Man first and foremost, is a master at positioning his own personal persona and ambitions to the detriment of any person that gets in the way. The $130 billion spend of $1500 fortnightly wage bill for employers to disperse to its workforce, is more about stopping the unemployment statistics reaching 15 – 20% , the Public Service has been hollowed out with no infrastructure left to administer this payroll stimulus. No Parliament sitting, no oversight of this $220 Billion spend up, difficulty of getting answers from the Morrison Government’s spend on the Sport and Community Grants and other Federal Programs totalling some $8 Billion, it will be near impossible to get answers on this $220 Billion spend. If ever we needed a Federal ICAC it is now.

    An Article written by Guy Rundle “Socialism? you’re kidding. The PM is using the state to save Capitalism. A Crikey publication 31/3/2020 gives an insight into where Australia is heading.

  3. Colin Cook says:

    Our Parliament has a vital role in the government of the country and , yes, of course they should functioning as normal – albeit with the extensive technologies at their disposal rather than personal meetings.
    In their unanimous judgement (ref PM Johnson’s Proroguing of Parliament) of 24th September the UK Supreme Court described Parliament as , ‘ the body responsible for the supervision of the Executive’ – and that therefore the proroguing prevent Parliament from fulfilling its function.
    That this Government is seriously in need of ‘supervision’ become more evident by the day and we truly need a functioning Parliament – the problems are too novel to be adequately met by the narrow, faulty neo-liberal philosophy that has contributed to the present predicament.

    See link

  4. Anthony Pun says:

    We are supposed to be a highly educated and technically sophisticated society and yet the “highest” workplace in the land (parliament) cannot operate with face to face meetings. The much acclaimed NBN and rhetoric announcement of their capability with loud fanfare – comes to nothing – all brag and no action. They can’t organize a chook raffle let alone setting up “zoom” internet meetings for MPs and Senators, which is the most logical way to continue proper governance couple with social distancing. Coronavirus may be a deadly innoculum but it brings out the best and worst of people.

  5. Peter Sainsbury Peter Sainsbury says:

    I have nothing really to add to what Tony Smith has written but I just want to express my complete agreement with him. It is outrageous that the Australian parliament has been closed for 5 months and almost unbelievable that the Opposition has agreed to this. We now have a right wing executive governing the country in an authoritarian, oppressive manner without any parliamentary scrutiny. This is an abominable degradation of our democracy. I have already exchanged emails with my local member about this and I encourage others to do the same. We must not let this development go without any resistance. Parliament should sit again, electronically if necessary, as soon as possible.

    • Greg Bailey Greg Bailey says:

      Agree completely with what Tony and Peter say. It is a disgrace that the opposition has been so silent on this, but hardly surprising.

      What is perhaps more worrying is that this abrogation of democratic modes of governing will escape the purview of most of the general public. I expect very little from the responsible MSM and nothing from the populous electronic media which present the world as a (hyper-) reality television show. I fear the general public are basically unconcerned about the removal of our democratic rights, since many do not understand how a legislative democracy works in any case.

      As the LNP has moved further to the right it has become more authoritarian and the ALP has followed suit. Without massive protests from the ‘quiet Australian’ the situation may–I stress the subjunctive–only become worse. I too will contact my local ALP mp on this matter.

  6. Peter Dixon says:

    Dr Smith clearly outlines the sad sad times we live in for democracy and good government.

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